Live Phish

Well, just your ordinary early ’90s Phish gig here, right? Hardly. Opening their 1992 fall tour with a plethora of song debuts, new geeky gimmicks, tune teases, a guest, and a bust-out seemed odd, but Phish were also returning as a headliner after a month-long jaunt opening sheds for Santana. And return they did with a vigorous and humorous show that featured nary a note of rust, but more of a sense of energetically weird dramatic tension.

And to be sure, this Haiti Relief 2010 post-earthquake benefit release is not an indication of the epic heights the band would begin to climb in their improvisation in 1993. But the show is an extraordinary document of what the band was willing to do to get their jam on. Indeed, you can hear the Phab Phour shout out their post-jam approval, especially frontman, guitarist, and singer, Trey Anastasio. Elsewhere, keyboardist and singer Page McConnell is much more vocal on stage as compared with later pre-hiatus campaigns with his off-the-cuff announcements and quips. Although, this was still in the pre-baby grand piano era so new Phish converts should take note as there is a subtle difference.

Overall, the band played a fairly rote first set that also featured the debut of “Axilla,” and several teases of the All in the Family theme song, “Those Were the Days.” Perhaps, the fact that the band was starting their tour in their home state of Vermont had something to do with the choice, but it made for a wacky signpost for a group that needed no encouragement to do anything to create a unique show for their expanding audience. And you can hear that confidence Phish had been acquiring after years of grinding road work on this release. You can especially hear it in “The Divided Sky” as the quartet seamlessly shifts into the melodic strands of the early ’70s theme song, before effortlessly shifting right back into the thematic structure of the Gamehendge classic.

The second set is where the infectious frivolity and surreal escapades take on an even more conceptually consistent shape on this beautifully recorded release by Phish engineer Paul Languedoc, and with post-production work by Phish archivist Kevin Shapiro. Opening with what appears to be a routine version of “Mike’s Song,” the band finally completely relax for the first time all night, and let the looseness of the piece unravel to fine effect. That tight-but-loose quality blossoms in the warm jam on “Weekapaug Groove” as the band shatters the piece from within, and venture into a fine funky sequence, before bringing the entire groove to a satisfying conclusion. At this point, a jubilant Anastasio sounds pleasantly surprised, but the band was years away from the claustrophobic self-awareness that would impact some of their mid-career performances.

After a brief breather with “Bouncing Around the Room,” bassist Mike Gordon sings the Johnny Cash chestnut “I Walk the Line,” which would foreshadow more madness during a “Tweezer” sandwich, and where the band ventures even further into the realm of exotic dorkdom. Phish decide to suddenly segue into “Big Black Furry Creature from Mars,” return to Cash Country, but this time, add a twist. Playing a speed metal song during a tune that already contained a classic hard rock riff, but simultaneously singing not only the lyrics to “I Walk the Line,” (Gordon), but “Ring of Fire” (Anastasio) takes imagination, skill, and chutzpah—elements in large supply in the Phish camp in the 90s.

Having completely come out of the “let’s fucking try anything ” closet, Phish delivers the debut performance of “Big Ball Jam.” Essentially, four large orange balls bouncing around the room (yeah, they kind of foreshadowed this short-lived prank staple earlier on in the set, as well), while each band member plays along to the crowd movements of a specific ball. Anastasio explains the notion, and dedicates the ‘song’ to monitor engineer Pete Schall. At Phishermen’s jams end, the audience confiscates one of the balls, and the band re-acquires its three other ball mates.

Ahhh…but this is 1992, and Phish would sometimes make any show appear as if it was the Last Gig Ever, shifting the pace, defying expectations, and adjusting momentum at the drop of a note, so they bring out fellow Vermont musician Gordon Stone to play pedal steel guitar for a trio of late set songs. One of the three played, “Fast Enough For You,” had also featured Stone on the as yet to be released Rift (February 1993). And the debut reading on this tour-opening night in Vermont of this incredible ballad out of nowhere appeared as another subtle yet important career signpost. Not only could Phish fuck your face, jam like it’s 1999, and own the venues and every soul who followed them, but they could go deep and mature with their lyrical content and song structure. Arguably, this melodic exploration of sophisticated songwriting would reach its apex on Billy Breathes, with a further statement of songcraft purpose on Farmhouse, but it is here, during this live gig, where one truly hears the first hint that Anastasio, in particular, has his sights on something much larger than getting one’s groove on.

As if things were too serious for a brief moment, Stone, after a fine guest pedal steel spot, left the stage, and Phish and Fish debuted “Lengthwise,” with a bizarre vocal and vacuum performance from the delightfully and defiantly un-self-conscious drummer. The quartet closed the show with “Cavern,” which appeared on their previous album, A Picture of Nectar, a multiple-personality map of the genres Phish would appear to assimilate and re-define over the next two decades plus. This gig is also a strong indicator of that trait.

Phish busted out Jimi Hendrix’s “Bold of Love” with McConnell on lead vocals after the song had endured a two-and-a-half year disappearance, and it is a fitting and…yes… confident conclusion to the opening night of a fall tour for a band, which, unbeknownst to the quartet (or WAS it?), was about to hit their proverbial improv stride in early 1993, never looking back to those days when one could just toss four big balls into a crowd, and riff away as a four-headed beast with one group mind until the moment had passed, only to be replaced by another, and another, until suddenly, one found itself headlining Madison Square Garden. How did THAT happen? Well, take a listen. Some of the clues are included on this release to help benefit the Haiti earthquake relief fund.